A New Age vision for the Old Man

Glass design gets a flinty reception

By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / May 3, 2009
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FRANCONIA, N.H. - Six years after the Old Man of the Mountain came tumbling down, a New Jersey architect wants to resurrect and redefine the famous jumble of granite with a fantastical glass-and-steel version of the flinty face of New Hampshire.

Channeling more of "Star Wars" than stonework, the 45-foot-tall structure - a New Age face transplant, if you will - would feature 250 suspended glass panels, an interior skywalk, and even a waterfall created from diverted rainwater.

The design, the award-winning brainchild of architect Francis Treves, has opened eyes and stirred talk in the North Country, even if it hasn't much moved the committee charged with creating a memorial to the Old Man. It is, Treves said, "a very sophisticated, intellectual redefinition of the idea of what the Old Man was, which was really man's relationship to nature."

The Old Man, chipped into New Hampshire's identity, was deeply mourned in this state, perhaps most by those trying to make a living from North Country attractions. Some of those venues have been hurt badly since the rock formation collapsed on May 3, 2003. But that doesn't mean the locals are ready to let a flatlander replace him with a hugely costly monument to rival Mount Rushmore or St. Louis's Gateway Arch.

"Public opinion has been very strong on not putting anything back up on the cliff," said Maggie Stier, executive assistant for the Old Man of the Mountain Legacy Fund, which has its own plan for paying homage to the state's indelible symbol of self-reliance.

Instead of an on-site memorial, the Legacy Fund has approved a tribute to the craggy profile at the base of the mountain. The $5 million plan would include five large stones that, when viewed from the right angle, would recreate the famous image.

"I think everyone feels it would be very harmonious with the natural setting of the notch," Stier said. "It also capitalizes on that wonderful quality of the Old Man, that it was only visible when you were in alignment with all those different outcroppings."

A fund-raising effort is scheduled to be kicked off today on the anniversary of the Old Man's demise, Stier said. Construction of the memorial could begin this fall.

Treves, whose design won an award this year from the New Hampshire chapter of the American Institute of Architects, said there is a "cultural divide" between his vision and the ground-tethered views of the Legacy Fund.

"The grand metaphor with this piece of glass on the mountain is it's not really a piece of glass, it's a piece of ice," Treves said. The Old Man, he added, "was sculpted by the glaciers; the ice gave it birth."

Treves envisions a transcendent structure that, rather than replacing the Old Man, invokes a communion between New Hampshire and nature that always had been part of the profile's appeal.

And the architect, who works in New Jersey but has a summer home in New London, N.H., believes he has the creative stuff to pull it off.

State Representative Kenneth Gidge, a Democrat from Nashua, said he can relate to Treves's ambitions, and his frustration. In his first bill, Gidge proposed to erect a copper replica on the mountain, but it was greeted with a chorus of boos in Concord and shot down.

"That's what put New Hampshire on the map," Gidge said of the Old Man. "It was a destination point. If the noses and ears of our presidents fell off Mount Rushmore, would they leave it there and build a monument to it at the bottom? No, that's a bad joke."

But according to Brian Fowler, a Legacy Fund director and former state geologist who conducted the Old Man's official "autopsy," no legislation can trump the laws of physics; the outcropping that was the Old Man will just keep crumbling.

"The notion that all the unstable rock fell off with the Old Man really isn't true," Fowler said. "Rock climbers are constantly reporting car-sized blocks falling off."

Besides, Fowler said, the daunting technical challenges of construction on an unstable cliff would make the price tag astronomical.

Still, in neighboring Franconia, opinion remains divided. Village Store cashier Eleanor Lovett wants the Old Man to rest in pieces in peace. But Steve Heath, who owns the store and regularly fishes for trout in Profile Lake, wonders whether a blockbuster, tourist-generating idea might be worth a second look.

According to state data, visitors to attractions near the Old Man have declined dramatically since the profile broke apart.

At the Profile Ice Cream Shop, sales decreased to $46,000 in 2006 from $146,000 in the 2002 season, New Hampshire parks officials said. Visitors to The Flume Gorge, located nearby in Franconia Notch State Park, dropped to 131,919 in 2006 from 172,113 in 2002. And riders on the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway dipped to 74,525 in 2006 from 99,389 in 2002.

"It brought hundreds of thousands of visitors to the area, and now it's gone," Heath said. The on-ground plans "will be interesting to some people, but they certainly won't replace what was up on the side of that mountain."

But this is the "Live Free or Die" state, and few are eager to mess with Mother Nature.

"We always took pride in it being a natural wonder," said Jill Roy, who runs the gift shop at the Tramway. Anything else on the cliff, she mused, "would just take away from that."